A tiny high-tech cube created by Australian engineers and scientists has been launched into space for the first time — and it could be the solution to the growing problem of space debris.
- Space debris consists of hundreds of millions of fragments orbiting the Earth
- Even the smallest pieces of debris can destroy critical satellites
- The Adelaide company’s technology is part of a potential solution
Space is more crowded than ever, and it is predicted that tens of thousands of satellites will be launched into Earth’s orbit in the next decade.
Space Archaeologist Alyssa Gorman said that the flow of space shuttles would bring the debris they left behind.
“Space debris refers to all the old satellites and fragments of satellites and small particles that are currently in orbit,” Dr. Gorman said.
“Conservatively, there are about 37,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters in size. If we go below 10 centimeters, there are hundreds of millions of tiny particles.
“For decades, people have relied on it burning up in the atmosphere to get it out of orbit, but we’re putting more stuff in there than we’re putting out, so we have a real problem.”
According to Dr. Gorman, even the smallest pieces of debris can destroy important satellites.
“Everything in Earth’s orbit is moving at an average speed of 7 kilometers per second, so you don’t want something hitting you at that speed,” he said.
“If we want to continue to have access to all of the space base services we enjoy for navigation, Earth observation and timing, we need to start proactively removing some of this debris.”
But now the technology developed by Adelaide-based Neumann Space hopes it can help tackle the pollution.
“Space sustainability is very important, so we can play with tourism in that environment,” CEO Hervé Astier said.
“First, we can help get the satellite into orbit faster, and we can also use space debris as fuel in our system.”
Electric propulsion systems used to accelerate and maneuver spacecraft are traditionally fueled by gas or liquid fuel.
But a team of engineers and scientists in Adelaide has created a team that can power a solid metal recycled from space debris.
“Most space debris is metal in space, so we can turn it into fuel rods and add it to the Neumann disk,” said engineer Hamza Baig.
“It basically turns solid metal into plasma.”
The Neumann Drive is used by space companies in the U.S. to carry devices on satellites, such as nets or robotic arms, to capture orbital debris.
The impactor then allows those satellites to return to Earth to melt the debris into more fuel.
“It will help satellites go into orbit when they reach the end of their life, which could be three years or five years from now, so we can help deorbit or reduce space debris,” Mr Baig said.
After nearly a decade of testing the technology and preparing it for orbit, the propulsion system was sent into space for the first time today.
Dr Gorman said the launch represented huge potential for Australia’s space industry.
“The technology of plasma engines using metal as fuel is a very exciting innovation,” he said.
“It could change the balance of the space industry and Earth orbit operations, and it could do so in the long term.”
“There’s going to be a lot of changes over the years, but initially it’s going to be a big step forward to get the space legacy, to show that the thruster works in space.”
According to Mr. Baig, if the system is successful after the first flight, the team is confident that this technology will become the new standard for space travel.
“What I see is that every company will eventually become a space company,” he said.
“And almost all satellites have to have a propulsion system on board, so we’re seeing a lot of demand for that.”
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